It used to be the case that award tickets were either available on a flight or they weren’t – and if they were, they were available at a fixed, published cost according to the award chart of that frequent flyer program. Many airlines still operate their frequent flyer programs this way, and those programs that do, usually offer the most value for your miles. As time goes on, more and more different types and levels of award tickets are being added – from saver to standard to dynamic/revenue-based, etc., nowadays, an award ticket and the price it has can get really complicated.
Saver-Level Award Tickets
A saver-level award is the traditional type of an award flight – either it is available or it isn’t. If it is available, it should price according to an award chart which has fixed cost and that cost does not change. This is the traditional type of award ticket and that many frequent flyer programs still maintain. The most value is always found in saver-level awards because they can often get you way more value from your miles.
Some airlines, like United Airlines for example, still have saver-level awards and standard awards, but they do not publish award charts. This means that pricing on their saver-level awards does vary, but these awards are still available.
Standard-Level Award Tickets
Standard-level awards usually cost 1.5-3x more than a saver-level award ticket and in some cases, you can book a standard-level award ticket right down to the last seat on the flight, but you will pay way more miles. In virtually most cases, it is never worth booking a standard-level award ticket because they are just insanely expensive and require a ton of miles. Standard-level award tickets have more availability because they are more expensive.
There are a few instances where a standard-level award ticket might not be priced much higher than a saver-level award ticket, in which case it still could be a great deal. For example, United Airlines could price a saver-level award ticket at 15k miles and a standard-level award at 17.5k miles. There used to be award charts for standard-level awards, but most of those have been discontinued, and the pricing changes from time to time.
Dynamic/Revenue-Based Award Tickets
An award ticket that is priced dynamically or in a revenue-based way, will see the price go up or down in miles, based on the cost of the same ticket in cash. So if the revenue fare increases with money, it will with miles as well – the same is true for the reverse, if a price in cash goes down, it should also go down in mileage. These types of awards are found in revenue-based frequent flyer programs, which aggressively try to make 1 mile worth $0.01 – so 10,000 miles would be worth $100 (towards a ticket, incidentals, etc.).
You’ll never find any good value in these types of programs because miles are essentially fixed to a certain value and there isn’t much you can do to change that.
Award Availability with Partner Programs
What happens with partner availability for award tickets? Well, thankfully, virtually most airlines still have traditional saver-level fares available (whether they offer them to their own members or not is a different story), and that’s how they offer flights to partner airlines for redemption. For example, American Airlines AAdvantage eliminated saver-level awards through their own program for their own flights – but AA still offers award availability to partner programs through a traditional, saver-level method (specific booking classes for awards – either they are available or not).
When booking through a partner frequent flyer program, you’re almost always going to be booking a saver award, since those (as of now) are the only types of partner awards offered. Some airlines have agreements in place between each other whereby they might offer more award seats to partner members at a higher cost, but as of now, that is the exception rather than the norm.
Booking award flights through a partner program is often where you find the most value in miles and points, because not only does the award price according to a fixed chart, but the redemption rates are often very attractive. Remember that the rules of the award ticket are always determined by the airline who’s miles you are redeeming rather than the airline that you are actually flying.